Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Two primary influences sparked my childhood interest in horror, which later grew into a roaring passion thanks to a complete lack of supervision during my teen years. It was on a bottom shelf at my grandmother’s house that I first discovered Denis Gifford’s “A Pictorial History of Horror Movies,” which provided a broad overview of the genre’s crème with a mostly black and white multitude of film stills that spanned decades up to that point. The book was packed with evocative photos from the silent era, to the days of Universal, then skipping onward to atomic mutant terrorists, and winding up with a chapter on the European revival of gothic horror.

I became familiar with the book prior to my own literacy, so film titles were impossible to extract. Still, the selected pictures engraved themselves deeply upon my young brain. Even years after losing the book, I would experience an elated recall whenever I’d recognize a familiar image from the book on film. The safest and most fond memories I have of childhood are best embodied by the thought of sitting under the large bay window in my grandmother’s house while lingering on some photos and nervously skipping past others that frightened me.

It was KTLA Channel 5 that served as both a counterpart to Gifford’s tome, and also as a major catalyst in getting me into horror. While I have previously mentioned KCOP Channel 13 out of Los Angeles as an incredibly influential station growing up, their weekend programming, late night and otherwise, gravitated toward more graphic European stuff, spaghetti Westerns, and drive-in fodder. Channel 13 that exposed me to “Billy Jack” and that the unsettling concept of rape and revenge, but Channel 5 introduced me to the Universal Monsters.

I can’t quite remember the year, but I know it was during an October that I was first permitted to stay up late to watch monster movies on television. As part of a week-long celebration leading up to Halloween, Tom Hatten, who MC’d early morning cartoons and the weekend Family Film Festival, hosted a prime time series that ran through the majority of the classic Universal horror films, spanning everything from “Frankenstein,” to “Dracula,” to “The Wolf Man,” to “The Invisible Man.” For my grandmother, who grew up during these initial releases, this was an occasion to celebrate. Each night we sat down to enjoy the blocks of black and white horror flicks, equally ecstatic. Now, some folks have comfort foods. I have comfort films, many of which I first saw back during that week.

Years later, Universal finally got around to repackaging and re-mastering a lot of these films under the Classic Collection mantle. For the first time, a lot of people were provided uncut looks at these films. Most dismiss 1931’s “Frankenstein” as too tame to qualify as a valid horror film by today’s standards, but when I was young the existing copies of this movie reflected edits that had been made to keep the film less offensive many years before. One major omission was the scene where the Monster tosses the little girl into the water, which ultimately leads to her death. Personally, I would have preferred the scene stay out, as it’s sped up and thus kind of comical. Another major cut comes when Henry Frankenstein shouts blasphemously after his creation comes to life.

Several decades later, I’ve crammed thousands of other films into my skull, but my fondness for the Universal horror films still beats powerfully. These films may be a passé topic for a lot of others who write about horror and cult film, but they paved the way toward a much darker stretch and I will always keep them in a prominent place both mentally and physically.

I’ll never quite be able to explain my attraction to sequels. In my mind, a sequel will totally validate a piece of shit. I have skipped numerous movies and then gone back after it yields a sequel that is probably equally crumby. Creatively, I think the process of writing a sequel appeals to me. The sequel is the gateway to mythology because it expands the initial story. I like seeing the aftermath of what occurred in the first film. All too often I will see a film and at its conclusion feel like life after the events I just watched would probably be a more interesting thing to see. But even if a sequel is bad, the attempt always intrigues me. In fact, nothing pisses me off more than an indirect sequel.

The only thing that grabs me more than an attempted sequel is a crossover, because it’s two fucking sequels in one. This is perhaps why Full Moon receives so much of my mercy, as they are probably the only studio since Universal to crossover more than two of their properties in a single feature. And while “Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man” is nowhere near Universal’s finest horror film, it was the first Universal Monster crossover I got to see. Loving both Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man, the idea of them clashing truly epitomized a word that has been cheapened by a lot of douchebags these days: it was epic.

So, apparently all that business about silver being an effective means of killing off werewolves was bullshit, because once Larry Talbot’s grave is disturbed by a couple of low-life grave robbers his wolfier half pops out and fits them for new assholes. Why he transformed back to himself after being off’d with an ineffectual method of destruction at the end of the last film, I don’t know. Frankly, I’m more concerned with poor Bela, the guy who passed the affliction onto Larry in the first place, because if Larry’s just been sitting in his grave waiting to be dug up, then Bela’s probably been pretty bored, too. Larry languishes in a hospital for a while, ranting manically about his condition, and he eventually escapes, making way to Vasaria, otherwise known as Frankenstein country. Larry chances upon the monster and hopes to uncover the doctor’s notes, which he feels holds the key to his eternal rest. Using Frankenstein’s technology, he intends to drain his life energy away in a reverse of the process that created the monster. Shit goes awry during the operation, though, and the monsters clash. And then they fuck you out of a conclusion to the battle by blowing everything up. That always pissed me off as a kid and kind of still does. But still, I love this movie for what little bit of monster battle that we do get during the finale.

This particular movie also was one of the messier productions in Universal’s horror catalog. Karloff had stopped playing the role of the monster after “Son of Frankenstein” in 1939, and in 1942, when “Ghost of Frankenstein” rolled around, Karloff was busy on Broadway as part of the “Arsenic and Old Lace” cast. So, Lon Chaney Jr. was called up to play the roll of the monster. As it stood in 1943, Chaney had last played both the Wolf Man AND Frankenstein’s Monster. The studio initially had the idea of having Lon Junior play both roles by using a method of trick photography, but due to the high cost this idea was abandoned. Ironically, Bela Lugosi, whom had previously shunned the idea of playing such a one-dimensional role over a decade ago, was brought up to play the monster. At the conclusion of “Ghost of Frankenstein,” Lugosi’s Ygor character has his brain transplanted into the monster’s body, so this was a sound casting choice. The fact that it was obviously Lugosi under the makeup could easily be explained as Ygor showing through. If you watch the Monster’s scenes in “Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man” very closely, you’ll actually see the Monster’s mouth moving. This was because the monster was written as an intelligent character, carrying over the brain transplant story from “Ghost of Frankenstein.” According to the film’s screenwriter, Curt Siodmak, when studio executives saw Lugosi talking in the monster makeup they lost their shit and were rolling in the aisles with laughter. I’ve seen some assholes try to dispute this fact, but not only can you clearly see Lugosi’s lips moving on screen, but the original Siodmak script was published in the 90s as part of the Universal Filmscript Series, and the monster’s dialog is indeed intact in the Photostats of the pages.

The following sequels, “House of Frankenstein” and “House of Dracula,” start to feel like cheap serials. This film’s subject was probably thought of as silly by producers, which would explain why the creativity put into the film is done so with very little respect for the material. The first two James Whale films were and are regarded very highly as fine pieces of cinema. This, however, is generally regarded as B-movie flotsam. It doesn’t necessarily feel as cheap as its successors. In fact, the quality of the production is pretty solid, but still, it’s a hot fucking mess.

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